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NAA Happy Talk is Obvious PR Riff

David Weir noted the recent advertorial from the Newspaper Association of America. David ably points out how the financial health of some bellwether newspaper properties flies in the face of the Pollyanna-like pleadings of NAA CEO John Sturm. But I found myself struck by how delicately constructed the claims were, and so decided to deconstruct the piece.

More than 104 million adults read a print newspaper every day, more than 115 million on Sundays. That's more people than watch the Super Bowl (94 million), American Idol (23 million) or that typically watch the late local news (65 million).

61 percent of 18-24 year olds and 25-34 year olds read a newspaper in an average week and 65 percent of them read a newspaper or visited a newspaper website in the past week.

He didn't specify a geographic region. Would that be worldwide? And how does he define "read?" Are all adults in a household that gets a paper assumed to have read the paper? Is that front page to back? Glance through? Does the audience focus on one section of interest? How much time do they send with the paper?

Furthermore, how do they count this supposed number? Adding print runs without looking at returns? How do they count people who read multiple papers?

Average weekday newspaper readership declined a mere 1.8 percent between 2007 and 2008, and about 7 percent since its peak in 2002. Compare that to the 10 percent decline seen in the prime time TV audience in 2007 alone. Meanwhile, newspapers' Web audience has grown nearly 75 percent since 2004, to 73 million unique visitors a month.
Is he claiming that newspaper readership was at an all-time high in 2002? That seems hard to believe. And if it drops every year, he should be worried. The head of a major company that found its customer base dropping year in and year out would soon be looking for new employment. Well, at least in most industries.
Newspapers, as individual businesses, by and large remain profitable enterprises â€" with operating margins that Wall Street analysts estimate will generally average in the low to mid teens during 2009. While that may be down from historical highs, such margins would be the envy of many other industries today.
The historic highs were, if memory serves, in the 40 percent range. The reason the historic perspective is important is that such a drop tells investors that the industry is declining. Yes, there are other industries that would like such margins, but that sort of comparison is overly simplistic. All industries seem to have their own natural level of profitability. But when those levels change radically, it's never considered acceptable. Also, saying that newspapers can expect low- to mid-teens for operating margin "during 2009" is hardly a vote of confidence, as it suggests that is a short-term outlook.
Google's own research shows that 56 percent of consumers researched or purchased products they saw in a newspaper. Google also says that newspaper advertising reinforces online ads: 52 percent are more likely to buy products if they see it in the paper.
Ah, yes, the Google study â€" released in April 2008, started in 2006, and no indication of when the study actually concluded. More of the data is available and states that "on an average day, more than 50 percent of U.S. adults read a newspaper," a figure attributed to a 2005 study â€" the source, perhaps, of Sturm's numbers? But hasn't readership diminished since then? Ah, well, why introduce facts. And because there is no information as to how this study was undertaken, there is no way to tell whether the claim that 56 percent of people bought or researched something they had seen in the newspaper is valid. And even if it is, how many could you filter out that had bought groceries and also seen some of those products in supermarket fliers?
Newspaper advertising options have exploded and now include shape and polybag ads, post-it notes, "we prints," shingle spadeas, scented ads, taste-it ads, glow-in-the-dark, belly bands and temporary tattoos, as well as event and database marketing, behavioral targeting, e-mail blasts, e-newsletters and more.
The existence of a plethora of options says nothing about the effectiveness of those options.
Newspapers make a larger investment in journalism than any other medium. Most of the information you read from "aggregators" and other media originated with newspapers. No amount of effort from local bloggers, non-profit news entities or TV news sources could match the depth and breadth of newspaper-produced content.
Now that I could believe. The problem is that newspapers must exist as a business, and the business is largely unhealthy.
This is not a portrait of a dying industry. It's illustrative of transformation.
The transformative property I see is the process of desperate public relations hard at work trying to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse.
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